Japanese Box Build

April 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

A few weeks ago Wilbur Pan wrote a post about a Japanese toolbox he built. This project caught my eye for a number of reasons—its simplicity more than anything. One board, some nails, and a few tools. The perfect project for Ray.

I figured a box like this would serve Ray well. He needed a way to transport his “contraption parts” and toys from one place to another, and he’s wanted a place to sister-proof toys he considers special. So he was excited when I proposed this project to him.

I showed him the box on Wilbur’s site as well as a Japanese toolbox that Chris found when he was in Australia. That box features some very simple finger joints that I find aesthetically pleasing. Ray, however, chose the simpler box, saying, “I don’t like those fancy sticky-out things”. So simple it was.

We were all set to go out to the home center to pick up some pine but I thought I’d first check the garage attic, where some miscellaneous boards leftover from my house’s construction remain. Bingo. A pine board more than long enough, totally dry, and only slightly twisted. Ray helped me bring it into the shop.

box board

I had him size the box using his arms, then count and mark out the pieces on the board. I then crosscut the pieces with a handsaw while Ray held them and stacked them.

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As I didn’t want the box to be too heavy for Ray, I dimensioned the lumber to a little over 1/2”, then asked him to pick up the stack of wood, telling him that the box with toys in it would be at least that heavy. He decided to make the box shorter, and I made the box a little less tall than wide. I then showed him how all the pieces would go together.

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Unlike the wooden jet project, Ray found putting the box together very challenging. With the jets, fitting the pieces together was not unlike putting together a puzzle—it was easy to tell which parts went where. When you pressed most of them into place they would stay together. Not so with loose boards. I quickly planed a very shallow rabbet (maybe 2 passes) on the bottom piece—he then had a very slight edge which helped him know where the box sides should go.

But clamps, even the quick-set ones, weren’t easy for Ray to manipulate, and in truth, I think it was in this initial assembly stage that Ray kind of gave up on the project. He made it through some glue and a few nails but started getting too restless and fidgety to keep him in the shop safely. I need to do a better job of realizing that it’s the instant gratification of snapping together LEGOs that I’m competing against. The trick isn’t keeping his attention span; he has an enormous attention span and boundless curiosity for things he enjoys; the trick is keeping the steps challenging enough to engage him but not so challenging that they become frustrating. In retrospect, I think setting the box up for him to drill and nail would have been a better approach.

After Ray went to bed that evening, I finished the box. I used box nails on the bottom, setting them deep so they wouldn’t scratch whatever Ray set the box on. And in addition to hide glue (unnecessary, but made assembly a little easier) I used wrought head cut nails for the sides and top handles. And for the pieces which go across the top of the lid, I used some cut brad nails, but only because I didn’t have any other cut nails that would work with the thinner stock.

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After milling the lumber (an unnecessary step if you buy appropriately dimensioned lumber to begin with), and not accounting for time spent helping Ray, the whole project probably went together in about 45 min or less. It really is a great project; if only everything I did in the shop could come together so quickly!

Japanese Box

I placed the finished box on the kitchen counter and Ray was thrilled to find it in the morning. He loves it—enough that he asked me to help him make a few more. A few things I’ll try differently as we make these boxes:

  • I’m going to pursue the finger-jointed version next time. I’ve already made a prototype, and by gang-cutting the joints, the whole thing comes together very fast. I think the finger joints will actually help Ray manage the assembly more easily by making more apparent what pieces go where and make the whole box easier to handle. The only clamp that will really be necessary is the vise in the joinery bench, which is easy for him to use.
  • Since we’ll be making a few boxes, the first one be an assembly-only project, with all parts prefabricated and holes pre-drilled. It’ll have the finger joints cut and small rabbets to help register pieces against each other. He’ll just glue and nail. He loves the hammer and cut nails.
  • For the second box he’ll drill at least some of the holes; he loves the eggbeater drill and the brace and already knows about pre-drilling from the jet project.
  • If we make a third one, maybe I’ll let him use a saw for one of the final cuts—maybe a flush-cutting saw to trim off one of the top pieces.

My wife and I are thrilled that the box is a place that Ray actually likes to keep toys that would otherwise lay all over the kitchen and family room, and of course, Ray is thrilled that his sister can’t get at them.

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But Anya’s strong enough now that she’ll just end up taking the whole box with her if Ray isn’t sitting on it. This is all part of the plan. Someday Anya will want to make a box for herself. And maybe by then Ray can teach her how.

5 responses to Japanese Box Build

  1. Killer post. I have two little ones (2.5 yrs and 0.33 yrs.) also and I’m putting this in the hopper for potential ideas one day.

    Quick question: in the background of the 3rd picture there are some tools in wood blocks (to the right of LN floats i think). Are those chisels? They look cool. I’m assuming it’s just a block to hold chisels but I can’t be certain.

    Thanks,
    Shawn

    • Shawn,

      Yeah, those blocky looking things hold chisels. When I was packing up the shop to move back to Chicago from California, I had some scrap and I just nailed them together. They transported the chisels well.

      I have some ideas for real chisel holders. Some day…

  2. OK. Stop. You’re making me want a kid.

  3. Hello,
    The process of making the puzzle box is given in the above post.People can make their own puzzle boxes by following the above procedure.
    Japan Craft Website

  4. Thanks for this: I’m looking for ways to encourage my boys in woodwork and my eldest is quite interested in this one. I can see the point about making the pieces ready to fit together though. We will have to see how that works for us in practice,

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